Having implemented a proven business model of remote support tools that offer time and cost savings, eliminate the need to travel and meet the world’s need for higher levels of flexibility and sustainability, GEA now offers a more agile way of working.

Digitalization is affecting the way many industries work and operate. And, because of the advances that have been made with computer processing power and digital simulations, the industrial discovery, development and production landscape has not only been completely transformed in recent years, significant progress is being achieved on a daily basis.

The right amount of automation, integrated business processes, networked production information and intelligent data analysis tools that are designed to increase safety, performance and service life — while minimizing downtime and capacity bottlenecks — are now the must-have technologies for many GEA customers.

Whether it’s on the farm or in the factory, everything from plant and equipment to entire process lines can be flexibly adapted to changing market conditions with solutions that provide all the benefits of IoT technologies, including more efficiency, better consistency and lower costs.

In the pharmaceutical and life sciences sector, for instance, the combined ability of activities such as process modeling, computational fluid dynamics (CFD), discrete element method (DEM) simulation and the evolution of digital twins is enabling researchers to do things that were completely impossible just a few years ago. These technologies mean that drugs — based on both small or large molecules — can be developed and scaled-up using much lower quantities of the expensive and complex active pharmaceutical ingredient (API).

Advanced digital solutions play a crucial role in achieving the process optimization that can help many innovator organizations, whatever their field of expertise, to hit deadlines, overcome challenges, remain cost-effective and create new opportunities. One such solution that is proving to be a game-changer in a wide range of disciplines is digital twin technology. For example, they can be used to improve process robustness and, subsequently, lead to OPEX savings by increasing overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

For clarity, a digital twin is a software-based virtual replica of the complete physical assets of a production facility, including its process equipment, instrumentation and controls, as well as the manufacturing processes taking place within the plant. Using this replica, the operation of these assets is modeled and simulated throughout their lifecycles.

In the same environment, process modeling is a technique designed to understand and describe a specific procedure or workflow. Often represented graphically as a flowchart or data-flow diagram, it connects and improves the communication between the current and the future state of the process as a way to identify potential improvements.

Café culture

So, how is it used? To give you a recent example, when COVID-19 hit and protecting the health and safety of its employees became priority number one, GEA took quick and decisive action. As well as allowing staff to work from home, reducing business travel and introducing sensible hygiene regulations, the on-site cafeterias were all closed to stop the virus spreading. However, with 1900 employees needing food and drink at the company’s Oelde (Germany) facility when the lockdowns lifted, a new set of rules and regulations had to put in place to keep everyone safe. The challenge was obtaining technical data that could be used to formulate the new safety measures.

To achieve this, GEA commissioned longstanding software partner, Dassault Systèmes, to create a virtual canteen using a digital twin to simulate the entire ventilation system and the movement of potentially contaminated droplets breathed out by people. We know that aerosols play a huge role in the transmission of the coronavirus; so, 2D blueprints, images and CFD was used to model and visualize the space and airflows in the room, right down to its air vents and the locations of existing tables, chairs and the coffee bar. To-scale avatars were also incorporated to recreate real-life cafeteria behavior. With incoming and outgoing air conditions all taken into consideration, the avatars were placed in diverse scenarios in which they breathed or coughed in different areas to show how the virus might spread in the cafeteria, in the kitchen and on various surfaces.

Based on the results of the simulation, GEA was able to initiate specific measures, such as reworking the entrance and exit, adapting the seating and introducing additional safety measures in the kitchen that enabled them to derisk the area and reopen the cafeteria.

The double centrifuge

In another application, machine construction, GEA experts have discovered that by using digital twins to conduct tests prior to finalizing equipment hardware can determine whether the control system, machine and process function seamlessly. A case in the point is the production of highly efficient centrifuges for industrial applications.

Until recently, because of certain production logistics and the need to rely on a third-party supplier, it was only possible to test the software in situ when the control cabinet and machine were finished as well (the software is usually ready very quickly). As such, if a fault was discovered, it could delay both delivery and commissioning … and inconvenience the customer.

Now, GEA has established a centrifuge simulation tool for software tests during development, factory acceptance tests (FATs) virtual commissioning. This simulation model is an image of the centrifuge and the complete installation and shows dynamic behavior during I/O simulation and fieldbus emulation.

With a digital twin that mirrors an immaterial object or production line in the virtual world, it’s now possible to recreate centrifuges, control cabinets and the whole process, and then test the software on the “digital representations.” In a way, it’s very similar to automobile construction when the car is first constructed digitally so that test drives and crash tests can be done despite the fact that the car doesn’t actually exist.

Not only does modeling enable troubleshooting and program adjustments to be made, it also provides additional benefits for customers and GEA employees alike; the actual separation process inside the bowl — with the desired raw material and precisely how it will run in the plant itself — can be integrated into the tests prior to commissioning. During a FAT, for example, the software can be tested independently from the centrifuge’s actual availability. Hence, potential software failures can be detected and solved much earlier resulting in better project execution and lower risks for customers.

Furthermore, adjustments to preinstalled plant requiring software changes can also be made, which greatly simplifies control modifications for a machine in operation. You simply load the simulation, run the machine exactly as it’s operated on-site and then make any required alterations. The control cabinet and machine stay where they are and updating the software has little to no impact on ongoing operations.

Previously, the software team was the last port of call prior to delivery. Often, they only had an hour or two to run the software and test it. Now, the control box can either go straight from the supplier to the customer or, if it’s highly complex, it comes to them first to set the key parameters; this simplifies logistics and accelerates the commissioning phase for the customer. It also provides an extra layer of security because GEA stores its twins in a version management system, which records how the control system was developed at a specific point in time.

Beyond the machine

Plant installations and upgrades represent a major investment in both time and money for producers. But, by using virtual reality (VR) and digital twin technologies, GEA brings planned components and facilities to life long before any building or installation begins. Detailed process simulations allow customers to consider various options and scenarios in a more agile and cost-effective manner and ensures optimum product quality after commissioning.

It may be a while before facility design and build is 100% digital and the IT infrastructure is in place to project three-dimensional holograms of new plant onto your desktop, but the technology already exists that enables modern-day industrialists to step into a computer-generated world of augmented reality and experience new equipment and facilities before they become physical entities.

Using remote connectivity, live camera feeds and smart goggles that enable instant two-way information exchange, it’s now possible to visit, explore and interact with virtual equipment and three-dimensional plant models without leaving your home or office. In fact, thanks to services such as DiGiTools from GEA Pharma & Healthcare, would-be engineers have the freedom to fast-track a wide range of projects and access an agile, fast and cost-efficient way to design, plan and optimise a plant before it’s built.

GEA also provides targeted digital training for operators, managers and technicians using transient process simulation and VR technologies. By modeling production processes digitally, future users have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their systems in the digital world, which is critical given the increasing degree of plant automation for which operating personnel often lack practical experience. VR training tools can also be used to show operators how to (dis)assemble and operate machinery even before it’s installed onsite or when giving demonstrations in person is problematical.

Much more efficient than conducting extensive user-training on the physical plant, virtual training reduces downtime and production losses, while helping operators to build confidence in a less-stressful environment by allowing them to control production process on a digital model. And it’s not just a case of taking customers in and showing them around. You can also meet customers in a conference environment in VR and present additional drawings that are automatically converted into 3D models. In there, you can take the equipment in your hands, pull it apart and pass it around the virtual table to customers.

With 3D modeling, simulations and digital twin technology, GEA enables customers to test, hone and improve their processes in a safe, virtual environment. By removing the unknowns from the equation, the company helps people to their equipment and plant online more quickly and with better results.

ConsiGma 4.0 virtual reality experience

Remote support and service

As well as offering virtual planning, testing, tours and installation assistance from afar, GEA’s Remote Support service enables customers to use a commercially available mobile device in their own production suite to connect and communicate with a GEA expert in real-time to resolve any issues. And, for procedures such as plant inspections, GEA Remote Eye Wear means that customers can interact with a live GEA service technician to provide support during commissioning and in the event of technical problems. As a result, response times are shortened and travel is almost completely avoided.

Regardless of application or sector, GEA customers rely on being able to successfully work with, integrate and manage new technologies and services. This is daily business for GEA, a company that’s continually working on new solutions — or optimizing existing ones — to add value by putting customers in the driving seat of their business.

Digitally-enhanced concepts such as DiGiTools enable us to work together in a more time- and cost-efficient way to deliver real and measurable benefits. As well as eliminating the need to travel and expediting FATs, installation and qualification procedures, they also meet industry requirements in terms of flexibility and sustainability. Taking a more collaborative approach to operational excellence, GEA’s online platform of process simulations, digital twins, augmented/virtual reality systems and remote support solutions represents a safe and effective environment in which to access, share and disseminate information, and a more agile way to achieve your goals.

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